The cabinet of Sarah Hare

Warning: this post contains images some people may find mildly disturbing.

“I first saw Sarah Hare in a dusty, little-used corner of my school library. I hated school so much that it was always a relief to curl up in one of the library’s crumbling leather chairs, the high windows steamy and the room warm with that special fug that comes from cast iron radiators. The cold classrooms and acrid laboratories would fade, and I would be somewhere else.

“Best were the books in leather bindings, bought before the First World War when the school was new. They were so little used that there was a crispness and a smoothness to the pages, despite them being more than a century old.

“I devoured them: serials of lost wills and mysterious relatives; proud descriptions of Town Halls, bridges and systems of drains; dire poverty in Calcutta and the East End; life in the Empire: exploring in Africa, factories in India, logging in Canada, missionary work in the South Seas. And the page-fillers - snippets of curiosa, strange things to be seen in the backwaters of England.

“And it was here that I saw her. From the 1860s or so, I should think. It might have been Household Words or All The Year Round - although I own complete sets of both of these now, and I have never seen her there again…

“A quarter of a century has passed, and it is one of those murky, drizzly days that remove any doubt that Autumn is coming to an end. Stow Bardolph is on the western side of the Norfolk, the part that Noel Coward was thinking of when he made his remark about the county’s flatness.

“It is with something approaching excitement that I step through the north chancel doorway into the Hare mausoleum. All around are memorials to the Hare family, dating from the early 17th up into the late 20th century. There are about twenty, some more prominent than others, but the one I have come for is the plain mahogany cabinet sitting in the corner.

“A bronze plate tells me that it contains Sarah Hare, who died in 1744. I open it up, and there she is. A wax effigy, dressed in her own clothes. She was about fifty when she died, and it was her wish to be immortalised in this way. The door to the cabinet is not without reason - she is terrifying, her face dumpy, warted, defiant. I had seen photographs of her in the years since I found her at school, but nothing could prepare me for the frisson of the cabinet door swinging open. I thought of the fairground peepshows that I can just about remember, and I realised that I would have paid for this, too.

“I’m glad I’ve seen her, glad she is still there. I’d first read about her a lifetime ago, in a book that was already a hundred years old. And all that time she’d sat, through two centuries of wars, kings, winters, the rise and fall of Empire. And nothing in all her life was as remarkable as this long, silent, immobile vigil. If she could know, would she still want this immortality? Would I want it for myself?

“I thought of Larkin: “Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not we use it, it goes, and leaves what something hidden from us chose, and age, and then the only end of age.”

“The sun has come out, a cold, bright, crisp, winter sun. I get into the car and accelerate out onto the A10, resuming the journey - because what else can you do?”

- Simon Knott

Simon Knott is editor of the Suffolk Churches and Norfolk Churches websites. Thank you very much to Simon for allowing How to be a Retronaut to reproduce and edit this account of his visit to Stow Bardolph.

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